Released: 4 October 2017 (Hey, that’s my birthday!)
Director: Todd Phillips
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $55 to 70 million
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, Brett Cullen, and Robert De Niro
In 1981, party clown Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) suffers from a medical disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times and lives with his mother, Penny (Conroy), in Gotham City. With Gotham overwhelmed by crime and unemployment, Arthur’s dreams of being a stand-up comedian and meeting his idol, talk show host Murray Franklin (De Niro), soon give way to a nihilistic insanity that inspires a violent counter-cultural revolution against the wealthy.
The Joker has long been a staple of DC Comics and is widely regarded as Bruce Wayne/Batman’s arch-nemesis; first appearing all the way back in 1940, the self-styled “Clown Prince of Crime” was created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane and has been responsible for a great many tragedies in the Dark Knight’s life, from the death of Jason Todd/Robin to the crippling of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, and has gone through a number of iterations over the years, from madcap extortionist, to demented serial killer, to self-mutilating madman. The Joker has also been adapted to film on numerous occasions; Cesar Romero famously refused to shave his moustache for the role in the sixties Batman show, Jack Nicholson brought the character to life in Batman (Burton, 1989), Heath Ledger was posthumously honoured for his incredible performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008), and Jared Leto had his time in the role significantly cut from the theatrical release of Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016).
Development of a standalone Joker movie was initially planned as a spin-off of Suicide Squad and would have featured Leto returning to the role; however, after a series of blunders caused Warner Bros. to rethink their strategy regarding the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), production shifted towards an unrelated interpretation of the character. Phoenix, who had previously turned down superhero roles, shared director Todd Phillips’ desire to produce a gritty character study that delved into the psychosis of the character, which is traditionally left ambiguous in the source material. Afforded a far smaller budget than other DC movies and also the first DCEU film to earn an “R” rating, Joker was a phenomenal commercial success and made over $1 billion at the box office. The critical reception was generally very positive as well; many praised the film’s uncompromisingly bleak narrative and for subverting the norms of comic book movies, while others were disturbed by the film, which controversially and inadvertently inspired both protesters and deplorable violence.
When Joker was first announced, I have to admit that I was sceptical; I wasn’t a massive fan of Leto’s performance in Suicide Squad but, if it’s one thing I desire in my comic book movies these days, it’s continuity and the idea of producing a standalone Joker film didn’t sit right with me in general, much less that it wouldn’t be a part of the DCEU. Instead, Warner Bros. made the decision to lean into the idea of the multiverse, a concept that has been used for decades in comic books to present wildly different, alternative takes on characters and which, essentially, allows everything to be canon even when it’s not. Even as a die-hard, life-long comic book fan, this concept is confusing and I was surprised when the general audience, and many comic book fans, reacted positively to the idea of two Joker’s being active in cinema at the same time. I found it difficult to consolidate these feelings, though, and still firmly believe that the DCEU would be in a much better shape now if the producers had taken the Joker and Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Yan, 2020) and combined the two into something that could actually fit in with the janky continuity of the mainstream DCEU. Thus, I was hesitant to even give Joker the time of day; no matter how much praise I heard or how many awards it won or how much money it made, I just found the idea of having another version of the character active that is separate from the DCEU was a bit daft, to say nothing of favouring a dive into the motivations of one of comic’s most notoriously ambiguous characters over a sequel to Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013).
When we first meet Arthur Fleck, he’s a pathetic excuse for a man; reduced to dressing up in clown make-up and forcing himself to be a smiley, jolly clown for hire, he’s beaten down (literally) by both life and society. Right away, it’s pretty clear that something’s very wrong in his head and with his demeanour; his social skills are questionable, his self-confidence almost non-existent, and his ironic pathological need to laugh uncontrollably at the most inappropriate times make him an inherently damaged individual. In a city drowning in chaos and unemployment, with life at its bleakest, Arthur may be one of the lowliest and most despondent citizens of Gotham.
Although he attends regular therapy sessions and is encouraged to write his thoughts and feelings in a journal, these outlets are of little help to his mental state; awkward, insecure, full of nervous ticks and tricks, he’s kept in a fragile stability only by numerous ambiguous medications and his desire to be a stand-up comedian. Ironically, just as he tends to descend into maniacal laughter in uncomfortable and awkward situations, his comedy routines and sense of humour are openly ridiculed and his medication seems to be holding him back from unleashing all of the pent up aggression and emotion bubbling just beneath his surface.
Arthur’s reality is one of pain and suffering and oppression; when not eking out a mediocre living during the day, he’s looking after his bed-ridden and increasingly confused mother, Penny (Conroy). Arthur’s main source of escapism is in watching Live! With Murray Franklin and imaging forming a bond with its host, and his idol, Murray Franklin. Lacking a true father figure, Arthur imagines himself connecting with Murray to fill that void in his life and this sense of abandonment and desperate need for acceptance, love, and understanding only fuels his despondency and anger. However, already on the razor’s edge of sanity at the best of times, Arthur snaps after first losing his beloved job as a clown and then taking a beating on the subway from three Wayne Enterprises employees, whom he shoots in cold blood. In this version of Gotham City, Thomas Wayne (Cullen) is a Mayoral candidate and both directly and indirectly responsible for Arthur’s state of mind and living conditions, and eventual turn into an anarchistic figure. Condemning the shootings as the work of “clowns”, Thomas champions the social elite and the top one percent over fixing the problems of the destitute and unemployed and, as a result, inspires a great deal of the social unrest and crime that plagues the city. It’s a very different and disturbing take on the character, who is normally a moral and socially just individual; he reacts with anger when Arthur confronts him and seems to care very little for actually improving the lives of the city’s destitute populace.
The discovery that Thomas may in fact be his biological father fractures Arthur’s already damaged psyche almost as much as Murray’s subsequent mocking of his awkward and embarrassing stand-up act and he is driven further to the edge by the discovery that he was actually adopted. No longer able to rely on his medicine to hold him at bay and finding a freedom in his murderous actions, when Arthur finally does give in to his base urges, his entire demeanour changes; in the beginning of the film, he slouches and slumps around the place like little more than a zombie. A gaunt, lowly speck of a man, it’s all he can do to get through each day much less trudge up the now iconic flight of stairs but, after killing for the first time, he finds himself liberated. No longer bogged down by his inhibitions and embracing his newfound freedom, he stands upright, moves with a grace and flamboyance and breaking into disturbing dances, and his descent into madness and violence only escalates from that moment on.
Joker goes to extreme lengths to evoke the spirit of the eighties; not only is the old school Warner Bros. Pictures logo featured at the beginning of the film, but the whole movie is full of a dirty, grimy appearance indicative of movies such as Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) and The King of Comedy (ibid, 1982), both of which play as big an influence in the film’s plot and Phoenix’s portrayal as classic Joker-centric stories like Batman: The Killing Joke (Moore, et al, 1988). Additionally, Gotham City itself becomes as central as a character to the film as any of the living actors; a desolate, crime-ridden, bleak place overrun with violence, this is probably the best look at the seedy, street-level crime that plagues Gotham. I find this very appealing as, normally, Batman stories tend to focus more on organised crime, supervillains, and corrupt officials rather than the very random acts of violence that caused his creation in the first place.
Of course, the real star of the show here is Phoenix’s performance; thanks to a dramatic weight loss, he appears almost emaciated and constantly on edge, as though his very skin is crawling with repressed emotion. He runs through a gamut of emotions throughout the film, from despondency and oppression to passion and anger, to a cold disgust and an unhinged mania. Phoenix perfectly encapsulates the random, volatile chaos that is the Joker, humanising this traditionally ambiguous and unpredictable madman in an unsettling way. Pathological laughter aside, Arthur is exactly the kind of unassuming, downtrodden man you’d walk past in the street on any given day without a second’s thought; until he finds solace in killing and carnage, Arthur’s only comfort comes from living in a dream world of his own creation where he’s beloved and successful and accepted, but, when that shatters before his eyes, he replaces it with the euphoria of inciting anarchy through his actions as the Joker.
Nowhere is Arthur’s fragile and demented mindset more apparent than in his relationship with Sophie Dumond (Beetz); as you might imagine, considering he still lives with (and has a worryingly close dependency on) his increasingly frail mother, Arthur’s attempts to woo Sophie are clumsy and disturbing. He follows her (stalks, you might say) across the city but apparently seems to win her over with his sense of humour; feeling the rush of killing, he goes to her and she attends his stand-up routine, which is a hit, and supports his endeavours. After finding out the truth about his parentage, Arthur goes to Sophie for comfort…only to discover that their entire relationship was another aspect of his dream world. Frightened and disturbed by his presence, she begs him to leave and, already driven to the edge by his mother’s lies and the knowledge that his stand-up act was actually a complete screw up that his idol mocked on live television, Arthur reacts to the loss of his last tenuous grip on sanity by brutally killing his mother.
Thomas’s derogatory comments about the “clowns” of Gotham incite the downtrodden and the desperate, like Arthur, into a rampant mob who don clown masks and believe that the Joker is sticking it to the wealthy and the oppressive elite. Seeing this, and his unintentional influence on people, excites Arthur, who finds himself in a position of power for the first time in his life. Betrayed by everything and everyone he’s ever known, Arthur is apathetic when he’s invited to fulfil his life’s dream and appear on Live! With Murray Franklin and instead sees it as an opportunity to spread his unique message and brand of chaos by shooting Murray in the head on live television while a city-wide riot breaks out. Although immediately arrested for the crime, the chaos that grips the city allows Arthur, now fully embracing his role as the Joker, to escape and stand amidst the adulation of his admirers having finally found his place in the world.
Joker is definitely an intense psychological thriller; as an exploration of the mind of a psychopath, it’s right up there with films like American Psycho (Harron, 2000) for the surreal and disturbing way it presents Arthur’s world and perception of reality. A traditional comic book movie it is not and that is immediately clear from the grounded, dirty aesthetic and twisted nature of the narrative, which focuses on an already disturbed and fractured man’s descent into complete anarchy. Joaquin Phoenix, of course, delivers a spellbinding performance and seems completely lost in the role; his commitment to the physicality and mentality of the character is commendable and he deserves all the praise in the world for delivering one of the most nuance and unsettling interpretations of the Joker ever seen.
Sadly, my initial misgivings about the film continue to hold true; the fact that the film ends with the suggestion that all of the events we witness may have been as much a figment of Arthur’s imagination as Sophie or anything else we see really doesn’t help with that, either. It’s perfectly in keeping with the Joker’s status as an unreliable narrator but it just adds to the pointlessness of the film in many ways. Sure, Phoenix is great and the film does a fantastic job of telling a self-contained Joker story without Batman but what is the point of really getting under the Joker’s skin if we’re never going to see him clash with his long-time nemesis? If Arthur isn’t the true Joker, as is also suggested, then again what’s the point as it adds nothing to the actual Joker’s story, which continues to run contrary to Joker in both comics, movies, and television. As a result, while Joker is an impressive and disturbing psychological thriller, it’s not really a very good Joker story and I can’t help but feel that it’s handicapped by being associated with DC Comics as a result. I get why it did so well and got so much praise but it just seems like a waste of time, money, and talent when it’s going to mean nothing in the big picture of the DCEU.
Could Be Better
Do you agree with my assessment of Joker or do you think I’m just talking bollocks? If you’re a fan of the film, what was it about it that you enjoyed? Do you agree that it’s disappointing that we won’t see this version of the character play a role in the DCEU or do you think such concerns aren’t as important as telling a good story? What did you think to Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the character and how does it hold up for you compared to other Jokers? Are you a fan of the DC movies exploring the multiverse and producing disconnected films or, like me, do you prefer them to be part of a larger shared universe? What are some of your favourite Joker-centric stories over the years? Whatever you think, good or bad, about Joker, drop a comment down below and let me know your thoughts.